What is account planning?
Account planning is a planning exercise that helps salespeople map out the important details about their prospective customers, and give them actionable insights that they can use to close large sales opportunities.
WHY IS ACCOUNT PLANNING IN B2B SALES IMPORTANT?
I believe our customers are the ones who pay our salaries. Our large deal accounts help us meet our quota. This is why they deserve the best of treatment from us.
Sales Reps should be invested in their customer’s challenges and goals. We can add value to our accounts only when we understand their problem, their situations, preferences and background well. This practice of becoming invested in a client’s challenges to provide them with the best offer helps sales reps gain new business with prospective customers and grow their wallet share in existing accounts.
There is a famous quote by Winston Churchill (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945)…
He who fails to plan plans to fail.
As a salesperson, most of the time, planning and strategizing are assigned to the sales leader. Salespeople are expected to execute these strategies laid out for them. But, the plan of executing these strategies completely rests upon the salesperson. As an account manager in B2B sales, you manage a very limited set of customers and all your sales activities surround these customers. If you are going to spend your weeks, months and years working with a limited set of customers it makes sense to take out a few hours to plan what you are going to do and how you are going to spend these important hours of your life.
This is why planning your activities is a critical step to getting the desired results in sales. If you don’t think it through, chances are you might feel that you are making progress by keeping yourself busy. However, your customers don’t pay you to simply be busy. They pay you to solve problems for them and you can solve their problems only if you have a clear plan of how to go about it.
People at times have the notion that planning is a waste of time and they directly get into action. However, they are missing an important point here. Planning is a hack to save a lot of their time. It allows them to prepare for the hurdles and the unforeseen changes that they may encounter.
Planning helps you bring predictability to your sales activities. It gives you clarity on what activities you need to perform, who are the right stakeholders at the customer’s end and how to leverage your resources in an efficient manner to generate business from your large deal accounts.
HOW TO CREATE A SUCCESSFUL ACCOUNT PLANNING IN B2B SALES
1. Selection of Accounts.
“Trying to focus on too many customers is an excellent way to waste valuable resources” – Sallie Sherman, author of ‘The 7 keys to managing strategic accounts.’
Agreeing with Sallie Sherman, I would like to add that when salespeople try to take on more accounts than they can handle, there is a possibility that they would not be able to do justice to all of them.
Moreover, Ged Holmes, former head of business sales O2, and a B2B sales expert has said that when people are managing a territory with a lot of accounts, they have to adopt a cut down approach so that they do not end up doing Large Account Planning for more accounts than they can handle. According to Ged Holmes, a sustainable Rep to Account ratio is 1:5 or 1:10 for a more seasoned salesperson. Anything beyond this might become a bit unwieldy.
This is why the very first and most important step in account planning is to select the right account.
Out of so many accounts in the market, how can you determine which are the ‘right’ accounts?
To make a crucial decision such as selecting an account for account planning, you need in-depth analysis.
Selection of Accounts should not be viewed from a 1-year point of view but it should be viewed from a 3-year point of view.
Here are four steps to selecting the right accounts:
1. Revenue Potential:
Every year, your LDAs spend enough money buying the products and services that you sell that they can easily make you meet a considerable portion of your quota.
I belong to the IT industry. And for us, banks are one of our largest customers. For banks, their next biggest expenditure after employees is on IT, as most of their business is digital, at least in the current scenario.
For me, if I had a large deal with a bank, I can hit a huge chunk of my numbers working on that deal with the bank.
However, every industry has a different LDA. For example, if I was in media sales, E-Commerce and FMCG customers would be my biggest LDAs. For e-commerce industries, where their direct business is with customers, their demand for marketing is very high, making them a very large customer for media sales.
Therefore, while choosing an account for account planning it is important to ensure that they have the potential to bring in the kind of business that will help you meet your quota. During account planning, you will be spending a considerable amount of your time reaching out to these accounts, networking, and researching about them. Therefore it is crucial that you spend this amount of time on accounts that will help you hit your numbers.
If they do not have the potential to help you meet your quota and you continue spending more of your time on them instead of focusing on other LDAs, this will essentially become a loss for you.
An account only deserves the royal treatment, if it treats you like royalty.
2. Stakeholder mapping :
As a salesperson, your job is to convince people at the customer’s end to do business with you and convince them that you can solve their problems better than your competitors.
However, to convince them you need to first understand them well.
How easy or difficult are they to convince? Are they open to doing business with other vendors? If they are involved with your competition, how open are they to listening to your point? Do they think that you and your organization are important to them? Can they give you time to demonstrate your capabilities?
If the answers to all these questions are in your favour then it makes complete sense for you to choose this account. However, if these answers are in negatives then you need to think through your decision before finalizing this account for account planning.
3. Product fitment :
Do you have the products/services that actually match your customers’ requirements? Will you be able to produce a very unique value for your customers compared to your competitors?
If so, then these are the clients you need to go behind. These are the perfect clients for you to do account planning for.
If none of your competitors can solve your clients’ problems as you can, then by default your clients will need you. They would have no other option. This will make the client a returning customer. And it makes more sense for you to pursue your returning customers and build a strong relationship with them.
Even if revenue potential and stakeholder mapping work in the favour of the account you are about to select, but your products are not a good fit for the customer, there is no logic behind going after them. If you do not have what they need, why would they buy from you?
4. Business and T & C alignment:
Every organization has its limitations. No matter how big or small a company is, it cannot sell to everyone or agree to do business with every client that comes its way.
Every company has its right set of customers.
For example, I currently work for IBM, one of the largest IT companies in the world. But a large company like IBM also has its limitations when it comes to working for any organisation. These include the following factors:
- They cannot afford IBM
- IBM’s products are not made to fit startups.
The opposite is also true. Startups themselves very rarely opt to work with IBM. Simply because their terms and conditions do not match.
These differences can occur in any form. It could be in terms of revenue and expenditures, deliverables, expertise, long term partnership, etc etc.
If you are a big seller, and you opt to work with a small buyer, you cannot expect them to offer you a multi-million dollar deal.
If you do not think through these points, select an account at random and start working on it, at some point in time you might realize that the deal you are getting is not worth the time you are investing.
On average, a salesperson manages not more than 5 accounts at a time. This means that in working with those accounts, the salesperson is investing months and weeks’ worth of time in it. And if these accounts do not help the salesperson in hitting his numbers, the salesperson would just end up wasting a lot of his time and bandwidth
As salespeople, our time is money, and therefore we should be very thorough with where we are investing it.
2. Stakeholder mapping
Once you have selected the accounts, it is time to plan your alignment with the stakeholders of those accounts. And to plan the perfect alignment you need to have the perfect understanding of these stakeholders.
A book that can give you great insight into stakeholder mapping is ‘The Challenger customer’ by Brent Adams.
Brent Adams first published his book ‘The Challenger Sales’ in the year 2011. The Challenger Sales went on to earn the #1 spot on the best sellers list of both Amazon and the Wall Street Journal. Through this book, Brent Adams successfully categorised the different kinds of sales reps and their strategies to deal with clients.
After the challenger sales, Brent Adams has now brought to us the book, “The challenger customer’, in this book instead of categorizing sales reps, Brent Adams has categorised the types of prospects and buyers.
According to his book, there are 5.4 different stakeholders involved in a deal. These statistics just goes to highlight how difficult it has become to close a deal today.
However, this number; 5.4 isn’t just talking about different people. It also talks about the different perspectives involved in a deal on the customer’s side.
On profiling, the customer stakeholders, Brent Adams and team found out that on average there are seven types of stakeholders at a B2B buyer’s end:
- The Go-getter
The go-getter is always on the lookout for new ideas. They are more concerned about getting things done.
2. The Skeptic
Owing to his name the sceptic looks at every idea very sceptically. He tears every new idea apart, and moves very slowly and very very cautiously.
3. The Friend
The friend profile will spend more time with you compared to the others. They are more likely to engage in casual conversation with you and are more likely to give you information.
4. The Teacher
The teacher type is always looking to share and create new ideas. They are also more likely to share these ideas with you while also encouraging you to do so.
5. The Guide
The guide is by far the easiest person to get your information from. They are always willing to talk to you and give you all of the important information about almost everyone and everything.
6. The Climber.
The buyers in the climber profile are in it only for themselves. They make every decision of theirs by keeping themselves at the forefront. ‘What’s in it for me?’ ‘What do I get?’ They decide based on whether the answers to these questions work in their favour or not. They are ready to climb up in the organization no matter the damage done to others.
7. The Blocker
The last one is the ‘blocker’. The blockers see themselves in the status quo mode or support your competition. They don’t talk to people outside of their known circle. And quite frankly think that they don’t need you as their vendor. Any idea of yours is not going to pass through the blocker. To put it simply, relaying your ideas or views in front of a blocker is akin to talking to a wall.
These 7 buyer profiles are further clubbed into three main categories. These categories include:
- The mobilizers:
These are the individuals who are constantly looking for good ideas. They are good at mobilizing change and building consensus.
If you want to talk to someone from the client’s side who is willing to listen to your ideas, if you want to talk to someone who is the most probable to move the deal forward, approach the mobilizers. Mobilizers are the ones to move an idea forward in an organization.
However, the mobilizers might be a little difficult to talk to. They like talking in facts. They are more concerned about their company rather than yours and will only be willing to listen to the ideas that are beneficial for their organizations. Moreover, they are sceptical and highly unbiased.
Mobilizers are the ones you cannot sweet-talk to. They aren’t in for too much small talk, they ask the hard questions, push back and quite frankly play ‘the Devil’s Advocate”. However, these are the qualities that make the best out of the rest to approach on your client’s side.
Talking to them can be unnerving. But they are your best way in.
They are the only ones who can inspire change in their organization. When they like an idea, they lock their heads on it. And when they do, their colleagues listen and follow.
The buyer profiles falling under this category are the go-getter, the sceptic and the teacher.
2. The Talkers:
These are the individuals who provide easy conversations. They can be a rich source of information. However, they won’t really drive actions or purchases. The profiles under this category are the guide and the friend.
3. The Blockers
The profile of blockers is the only one to fall under this category. Blockers rarely help new vendors and are not really interested in change and new ideas. For them, stability is of priority.
Once you have successfully identified and profiled your buyers, the next thing for you to do is, to create an engagement plan which objectively lists down the actions you need to take to help you add value to the mobiliser in the client organisation
You need to be very clear what are the metrics of evaluation of the mobilisers performance and how your organisation help them achieve those metrics.
3. Know your customer
Once you have selected your accounts and categorized them, the third step is to become a student of the customer.
To do this you will have to take into account the following three aspects of your customer.
1. External pressure
As a B2B salesperson, you and your organisation are in the business because you can do two things for your customers. You can either help them make money or you can help them save money.
In today’s cut-throat economy, every business faces various challenges out of which some are internal and some are external. At times, internal challenges are easy to figure out but external challenges are not under business control. For e.g, IT Outsourcing companies in India have very little control over America’s Foreign Policy rules. And if the new policy suggests restricting Indians from issuing work visas, this will mean more and more work needs to be done in-house over here. And if you are an account manager managing large IT service companies, you will have a potential opportunity to sell a more collaborative IT Infrastructure solution to your large account.
Knowing the external pressure affecting your client and their industry helps you identify potential large opportunities at your client’s place and map your solution to those opportunities far ahead in the sales cycle.
One of the consistently top-performing Sales reps once said to me,
“I do my best selling when my customer isn’t buying. When they’re buying, everything is different, The walls are up. Customers don’t prefer opening up and revealing their pressure. But When the customer isn’t buying, they are willing to listen to me. I can take steps to distinguish myself and my organization, overall they are very open with me.”
Typically we have seen external Drivers that affect the business are in the area of Competition, Market forces, Economy, Regulation, and Technology.
For E.g External pressure like COVID 19 opened up billions of dollars of business opportunities for digital transformation across industries in such a short span of time. Large or small organisations, schools, colleges, profits, and non-profits had to adopt digital tools to sustain their businesses which resulted in a huge opportunity for business for Tech Companies across the globe.
So, your Strategic Accounts could be in IT, Banking, Manufacturing, Retail or any other Vertical. If they are in business, there are external pressures they are facing which could be a potential goldmine for your Sales Funnel.
2. Business Objectives:
Business objectives are key business priorities that are on the must-do list of a CEO and Sr Management of your Strategic Account. You will find these in their Annual Statement, Investor presentation, and Management Interviews or these could also be a part of the Vision and Mission statement of the Company.
These are non-negotiable business initiatives and if the Management falters on these it could be a serious impact on the Company’s revenue, profitability, Brand Image & Investor Confidence.
I work for IBM and if anyone is following IBM, they must have noticed IBM’s business objectives that are given below:
- Becoming the #1 Hybrid Cloud and AI company
- Growing Revenue
- Generating Cashflow
Now, any vendor who sells to IBM can help in these three areas. IBM would be willing to work with a business if its objectives are at the centre of all possible purchases that the organization makes.
As an Account manager in the B2B space, you should be able to identify and define your Customers’ Business objectives .
Different organisations have different business objectives.
Some examples of business objectives are :
- Reducing Time to market
- Improving Revenue
- Improving Profitability
- Faster innovation
A tip to find out the Business objectives of any customer is to thoroughly research their organisation, and listen carefully to your customers, especially when you are talking to CXOs of the organization.
3. Internal Challenges:
Internal Challenges are the hard challenges your customers face in their daily lives. They are the ones that come in between the customer and their business objectives. They are the ones that keep individual customers in your large account up the whole night. You can see them listed in the RFP specs. They can be easily articulated by anyone at the customer’s end. They are what most traditional Sales reps focus on.
Every large Account Planning should cover Business objectives, External Pressure, and Internal Challenges. If your account plan doesn’t list these parameters it is difficult to figure out what value you can deliver to your Large accounts. If you are not able to create distinct and unique value for your large customers you end up competing on price.
For some deals, you need to compete on price but as a B2B salesperson, we have a job because we can move customers away from price discussion to value discussion.
Value can be created if we understand what are value drivers for customers which needs research and planning.
Strategic account management is an important job that requires rigour and discipline. Think of it as running a business within your business. Account planning is important to help identify the resources that you need to achieve your growth objectives. And, it is a collaborative process that requires involvement from various teams within an organisation. Too often, account plans are more fantasy than reality — many organizations go through an annual account planning exercise and then forget to execute the plan.
If we have to stay in business we need to close deals from our strategic accounts to achieve our sales quota. This means your account plans need to be real and executable, and you need to hold people accountable for executing their account strategies. Identify the objectives, goals, and key performance indicators, to track progress, just as you would manage your sales pipeline. Make sure your SAMs have what they need to meet their goals and help coach their strategic account teams to success.
Tip: Don’t consider a strategic account plan finalized unless your client has seen and agreed to the plan. You should involve the client in the process to ensure that the plan is valid and actionable.
It is easy to get distracted from the fundamentals necessary for account management strategy execution. While there are an unlimited number of initiatives around people, processes, and technology that can help you reach your goals, few will be as impactful as establishing key clients as strategic accounts and managing them well.
Before you embark on your next strategic initiative or brainstorming session, ask yourself how much potential exists within your strategic accounts and what you need to do to protect and grow these assets. In the end, strategic account programs will provide consistent, stable revenue that will help you sustain long-term growth and success for your company.
If you liked this article, share it with others who might find it interesting. If you have any queries ask them in the comments section, I am always happy to help.
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